Air Date: January 26, 1996
1996 Presidential Candidates Profile Series: Phil Gramm/ Eric Westervelt
Phil Gramm's hands-off approach to environmental regulation is reflected in his well established voting record. Gramm has been a stalwart advocate for individual property rights for more than twenty years. Eric Westervelt of New Hampshire Public Radio reports on the former Democrat and Presidential hopeful. (07:55)
The Spice of Life: Diminishing Food Varieties/ Richard Schiffman
At grocery stores around the country, produce appears to be fairly uniform in its offerings. While many consumers find this homogeny reassuring, some scientists and nutritionists worry that this lack of variety is impacting our ability to deal with genetic changes in the future. Richard Schiffman reports from New York City on how we got where we are today. (12:40)
The Living on Earth Almanac
Of donkeys and elephants, political animals. (01:00)
Rhode Island Oil Spill
Dr. Judith McDowell, a scientist with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, fields questions from Steve Curwood on the recent spill of heating oil in the Atlantic ocean off the coast of Rhode Island. (05:01)
ANWR Oil Drilling: Get It out in the Open/ Nancy Lord
Commentator Nancy Lord states her preference that oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge be discussed in an open, forthright manner, and not pursued behind closed doors in Congressional budget negotiations. Ms. Lord lives in Homer, Alaska. (03:23)
Sustainable Logging in New Mexico/ Deborah Begel
A tract of forest owned and managed by Boy Scouts gets some special handling. This and other success stories are described by Deborah Begel reporting from New Mexico on a number of small-scale foresters who are practicing logging in an economically and environmentally beneficial manner. (08:00)
Living on Earth Profile Series #21: E. O. Wilson: Of the Grasshopper and the Ant
Living on Earth producer Kim Motylewski and host Steve Curwood profile Edward O. Wilson. The sometimes controversial Harvard professor turned his childhood passion of studying insects into a lifelong career as a researcher, teacher and author of books on animal biology, ecology, human population, biodiversity and a new theory called the "Biophilia Hypothesis." (08:39)
Copyright c 1996 by World Media Foundation. No portion of this transcript may be copied, sold, or transmitted without the written authority of World Media Foundation.
HOST: Steve Curwood
NEWSCASTER: Jan Nunley
REPORTERS: Stephanie O'Neill, Eric Westervelt, Richard Schiffman,
Deborah Begel, Kim Motylewski
GUEST: Judith McDowell
COMMENTATOR: Nancy Lord
(Theme music intro)
CURWOOD: From National Public Radio, this is Living on Earth.
(Music up and under)
CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.
Texas Senator and Republican Presidential hopeful Phil Gramm may be trailing in the polls, but he's high on the hit list of environmental activists. They say he has one of the worst records on the environment in Congress. His supporters say that's not fair.
SMITH: Certainly I would think it would be absolutely ludicrous to think that Phil Gramm would want to destroy the environment. I think it's just a cheap shot that's not accurate.
CURWOOD: Also, what's the cost of having tomatoes and strawberries year round? There's growing concerns that the variety we seem to have in our food supply is a dangerous illusion.
GUSSOW: What we really have available is 20,000 or 30,000 items in the supermarket based on a very, very narrow genetic base.
CURWOOD: That and more this week on Living on Earth, coming up right after this news.
NUNLEY: From Living on Earth, I'm Jan Nunley. Global warming may be causing Antarctica's ice shelves to melt away. A report in the journal Nature says at least 5 of the ice shelves that make up much of Antarctica have retreated dramatically during the past 50 years. The study notes that a 500-square-mile chunk of ice fell off the Larsen ice shelf a year ago. The study by scientists from the British Antarctic Survey says the decay of the ice sheets coincides with the steady rise in Antarctic temperatures. Since 1945 the average temperature at Faraday Station has increased by more than 4 degrees Fahrenheit.
The Army has more than 30,000 tons of nerve gas and blister agents in its stockpile. The Pentagon recently gave the first public accounting of how many chemical weapons remain a decade after Congress ordered their destruction. An Army spokesman says declassifying the information will speed efforts to get environmental clearances for incinerating the weapons. The Pentagon also has more than 23,000 tons of chemicals not counted in its stockpiles. Nearly half is used to test defenses against chemical weapons, such as protective clothing for the battlefield. The rest is from weapons captured during wartime. The Pentagon admits it doesn't know what's in many of those weapons. Nearly all of the stockpile is scheduled to be destroyed in the next 8 years at a cost of $12 billion.
A new gasoline that's twice as clean as that mandated by the Environmental Protection Agency will soon be on sale in California. It's being called the biggest boost to clean air since the catalytic converter. Stephanie O'Neill reports from Los Angeles.
O'NEILL: Beginning this month, the 24 million California cars old and new will pollute far less, thanks to a reformulated fuel hailed as the world's cleanest burning gasoline. Government officials say use of the fuel will have the same impact on the air as removing 3 and a half million vehicles from the Golden State's roads. Environmental activists say unlike the catalytic converter, which was phased in with new cars, the fuel is immediately usable in both old and new vehicles, and will have a far more immediate impact on California's air. In southern California, auto exhaust causes more than half the smog. The reformulated fuel is twice as clean as less-polluting gas mandated by the EPA in other smoggy regions of the nation, but it will come at a price: up to 10 cents more per gallon. All the state's refineries must produce the new gas by March 1, and all gas stations must sell it by June 1. Many, however, are selling it now. For Living on Earth, I'm Stephanie O'Neill in Los Angeles.
NUNLEY: The House has voted to let states set lower quality standards for water used in irrigation ditches and other manmade waterways. Under the bill, states would not have to impose so-called fishable, swimmable standards on drains and conduits used for agricultural purposes as long as environmental safeguards are met. The bill was supported by western lawmakers who say their states spend millions of dollars satisfying unnecessary water quality standards. But several Democrats voiced anxiety that the legislation is too broad. The bill now moves to the Senate.
The organism responsible for a deadly disease spread by ticks has been grown in a laboratory. Scientists hope that will help them develop better tests and treatments for human granulocytic ehrlichiosis, or HGE. The newly recognized disease causes fever, chills, severe headaches, and muscle aches. If detected early it's usually treatable with antibiotics. HGE is spread by organisms living in the tick that's also responsible for Lyme disease. Precautions such as wearing long-sleeved shirts and pants and checking for ticks on the skin after entering wooded areas are also effective against contracting HGE. The disease kills about 5 percent of its victims. Most vulnerable are the elderly and those with weakened immune systems.
Citric acid is showing promise as an alternative to formaldehyde in no-wrinkle fabric treatments, but don't start washing your clothes in lemon juice yet. Because cotton is formed from chains of cellulose, researchers say citric acid, like formaldehyde-based agents, forms bridges between those chains, allowing fabrics to be wrinkle free. The garment and cotton industries are looking for an alternative to formaldehyde, which is closely monitored in the workplace as a potential health hazard. Beth Andrews is a research chemist at the Agricultural Research Service Laboratory in New Orleans.
ANDREWS: Up until now, the most cost effective chemical treatments are based on formaldehyde, and because we want to keep cotton environmental friendly, we have been searching for an alternative. Citric acid goes down your drain every day at home.
NUNLEY: Citric acid, which is part of all citrus fruits, has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration for food and other uses.
That's this week's Living on Earth news. I'm Jan Nunley.
(Theme music up and under)
CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. If there's one candidate for the Republican nomination for President that environmental activists love to hate, it's the folksy yet scrappy Texas Senator, Phil Gramm. The son of an Army sergeant, Senator Gramm is a strong advocate for property rights. And he's voted against the Clean Water Act and tougher pesticide regulations and called for oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. But if he infuriates those who would like to see tighter environmental controls, he's the darling of many who say government regulations have gone too far. A former economics professor at Texas A&M, Mr. Gramm was elected to Congress in 1978 as a Democrat. Many say he was more sympathetic to the Republican party from the outset, and he later switched to the Republican side and won a Senate seat in 1984. As part of Living on Earth's series on the Presidential candidates, New Hampshire Public Radio's Eric Westervelt takes a look at Phil Gramm's record.
(People gathered, ambient conversation)
WESTERVELT: On the campaign trail, Senator Phil Gramm tells voters that if elected President, he'd be the first dedicated hunter in the White House since Teddy Roosevelt. But Senator Gramm's long voting record might not please the father of Republican environmentalism, the man who founded America's national parks. Senator Gramm wants to sell off some Federal lands. He wants to increase logging in national forests and to open up coastal California, Florida, and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling. The Federal Government, Gramm says, has locked up too much land, and is treading on the rights of private citizens to use their own land as well.
GRAMM: When I become President, when my hand comes off the Bible, we're going to stop taking private land for public purpose without paying people for it, because it violates the fundamental law of the land, the Constitution.
WESTERVELT: Senator Gramm's no newcomer to property rights. He's been pressing the idea for more than 20 years. The Senator recently introduced a Private Property Compensation Bill. It says if environmental or other regulations reduce the value of your property by at least 20%, Uncle Sam has to pay you for the loss, and pay your court costs. Senator Gramm proudly calls private property the original conservation movement.
GRAMM: People protect property that belongs to them, because it's theirs. They have every incentive to be judicious in using it, because it is theirs. And they pay for it if they don't.
WESTERVELT: Senator Gramm's hands-off approach to environmental regulation has informed his long voting record on the issue. He opposed reauthorization of the 1987 Clean Water Act. He opposed creation of the Superfund toxic waste cleanup program. And he opposed pesticide regulations in the 1990 Farm Bill. He voted for the 1990 Clean Air Act, but fiercely fought an amendment to strengthen curbs on ozone depleting chemicals. It's a record many conservatives praise, yet makes conservationists cringe.
LOYLES: Phil Gramm's voting record in the House and the United States Senate has been abysmal.
WESTERVELT: Betsy Loyles, political director for the League of Conservation Voters, says Senator Gramm's lifetime voting score with the League is 8 out of 100, one of the lowest scores in the US Senate.
LOYLES: That's the bottom of the barrel. You can't get much more bottom of the barrel. Every chance that he could get, he has voted against the environment. He has voted against health and safety protections. He has voted against the taxpayer and for the quote so-called phony property rights movement.
WESTERVELT: It's not just Washington environmental groups that assail Senator Gramm's record. For instance, while he has vowed as president to, quote, "make agriculture the flagship of America's trade policy," critics in Texas say the Senator has never been a friend of family farmers.
HIGHTOWER: Phil Gramm's idea of a good farm program is Hee Haw.
WESTERVELT: Texas Democrat Jim Hightower is the state's former agriculture commissioner.
HIGHTOWER: This guy has never supported any agricultural proposal that would actually allow family farmers in the country to have a chance of even making a living, much less prospering. He has pursued a cheap commodity policy for farmers, holding down the price of their corn and their cotton and their soybeans and et cetera, in order for the profiteers, the middle men, to be able to squeeze the farmer on the one hand and then turn and squeeze the consumer on the other hand, making a bunch of money in the middle.
WESTERVELT: Hightower says Senator Gramm pushed to locate a nuclear waste dump in a poor, largely Mexican American section of West Texas, an action he says epitomizes Gramm's pro-business, anti-environmental record. He and other conservationists charge that when it comes to the environment, Senator Gramm does the bidding of big oil, timber, petrochemical, pesticide, and other companies. The Senator has gotten plenty of money from powerful contributors. After the gun lobby, the oil industry is his second highest career campaign contributor. That's according to Federal Election Commission reports analyzed by the non-partisan Center for Public Integrity. Chuck Lewis is the Center's director and author of the new book, The Buying of the President. Mr. Lewis says he has no direct evidence that Senator Gramm's corporate contributors shaped his voting record on the environment.
LEWIS: We're saying these folks are very close to each other, and both of them seem to have gotten something out of the relationship. And voters should know this and be educated about it and be aware of it and be ready for it, and in fact I think they should ask questions about it. They can all explain their relationships any way they want. I don't much care what they say. I think the public should know that they are tight.
WESTERVELT: The charge that Senator Gramm may put business interests ahead of the public good makes his supporters bristle, including New Hampshire's senior US Senator Robert Smith. The only member of New Hampshire's congressional delegation to back Senator Gramm -- the rest are behind Senator Bob Dole -- Smith says Senator Gramm has always fought for the taxpayer over special interests.
SMITH: Senator Gramm thinks as I do that raising taxes on communities involuntarily, forcing mandates on communities, is wrong. Senator Gramm breathes the same air that they do, he drinks the same water they do, he looks at the same mountains and lakes and streams and fishes. He's a fisherman and a hunter. He's an outdoorsman. I certainly would think it would be absolutely ludicrous to think that Phil Gramm would want to destroy the environment. I think it's just a cheap shot that's not accurate.
(A rally. A man shouts, "Gramm '96! Gramm '96!")
WESTERVELT: On the trail, Senator Gramm says one example of his pro-taxpayer approach to the environment is his newfound support for raising the small fee corporations and ranchers now pay to mine and graze on Federal lands.
GRAMM: We need to be good stewards of the taxpayers' resources, and if we're going to mine gold or uranium or silver or oil or whatever we're mining, that we want to do it in an environmentally safe way. And we want to have competition for the availability to do it, so that the taxpayer gets a fair rate of return on the asset.
WESTERVELT: Yet besides that example, the Senator is vague on just what a Gramm Administration would do to help protect America's environment. Gramm is proudly pro-development, and says he's not willing to jeopardize jobs in Texas or anywhere else. A balance, he believes, can be found. As Senator Gramm continues his aggressive quest for the presidency, some analysts believe it could test how far the party of Roosevelt is willing to go. How much environmental deregulation Republicans are willing to embrace, when it comes to picking their presidential nominee. For Living on Earth, this is Eric Westervelt reporting.
CURWOOD: Just ahead on Living on Earth, there's more food than ever in American supermarkets. But our blessing may also be a curse. Stay tuned.
(Music up and under)
CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. The modern American supermarket is a vast cornucopia of fresh and processed foods from around the world within arm's reach, at prices most of us here can afford. We truly do live in a land of plenty, but this plenitude has also brought hidden problems, and some students of the food supply have begun to worry whether our current abundance has come at too high a cost. From New York City, Richard Schiffman has this special report.
(Loudspeaker in supermarket: "There's chicken cutlets on sale today, $1.99 a pound...")
SCHIFFMAN: If you're like me, you've walked down the aisles of your local supermarket countless times, and you've undoubtedly been amazed by what you've seen there in the overflowing bins and shelves.
DINOFIO: This time of year most are greens, string beans, collard greens. All greens come mostly from Florida. Also we have some vegetables coming from California, like broccoli, all types of lettuces. We have asparagus out of Chile.
SCHIFFMAN: Supermarket produce managers like Angelo Dinofio order their fruits and vegetables from every state in the Union and from nearly every country on earth. The supermarket shelves are stocked to overflowing with an incredible array of food products. But some critics suggest that this diversity is more apparent than it is real.
GUSSOW: What we really have available is 20,000 to 30,000 items in the supermarket based on a very, very narrow genetic base.
SCHIFFMAN: Joan Gussow is Professor Emeritus in Nutrition at Columbia University. She says that most of what's available at the supermarket comes from a surprisingly small number of food crops.
GUSSOW: We have 3 or 4 varieties of potatoes that are grown in the United States, and we have hundreds of varieties of French fries. That's really what we've come to. Our variety is in the innovation of the mind of the food technologist, not authentic variety.
SCHIFFMAN: In fact, most farmers are growing fewer varieties of fruits and vegetables today than they were in the past, and critics say that fewer varieties means less genetic diversity. And they claim that less genetic diversity means a food supply that's more vulnerable, especially to disease.
(Supermarket checkout counter, electronic sounds)
SCHIFFMAN: So how did it happen that our supermarkets came to stock so many products based on such a small number of crops? The reasons are complex and they involve the ways that food gets grown, shipped, and marketed.
(A tractor motor)
SCHIFFMAN: First amongst these, according to Joan Gussow, is the growth in petroleum-based agriculture.
GUSSOW: The way in which we grow food in this country has been very, very much based on the availability of cheap energy. And so we have substituted for nature's gifts, which are to control most insect pests, to recycle minerals, to recycle nutrients, to recycle water. But we have substituted inputs based on petroleum for that. We have substituted herbicides, pesticides. We've substituted tractors. We pump water with petroleum.
SCHIFFMAN: The use of oil and petrochemicals has revolutionized the way that we grow food in this country. For one thing, it's allowed for an exponential increase in the size of farms. In a matter of decades we've moved from a network of small farms typically growing lots of different things to an agriculture dominated by huge factory farms growing perhaps only one crop. Five hundred or 1,000 acres planted in, say, green beans or iceberg lettuce, and all of it tended and harvested by machines. And then there are also advances in transportation technology.
(Trucks on a highway)
SCHIFFMAN: Nothing has changed the way food gets marketed in America quite so much as the introduction of huge refrigerated trucks. It used to be that farmers had to get their produce to the market fast, before it spoiled, but that's no longer the case.
COHEN: A hundred years ago we did not have the advantage of good quality refrigeration. So a product grew every day, it had to be sold every day, it had to be consumed every day.
SCHIFFMAN: Ira Cohen is a food wholesaler in New York City.
COHEN: Now, with the new techniques and the new seeds and new farming methods that have been developed with our growers, we have access to product that will have a much longer shelf life. So we can afford, now to bring product from other parts of the world and other parts of the country in order to satisfy the need.
SCHIFFMAN: The result has been that the market for food products, which was once regional, has become global. Every farmer in the world is now in effect competing with every other farmer for space on distant supermarket shelves. Paul Raeburn is the science editor of the Associated Press and the author of The Last Harvest, a book on the dangers of the shrinking genetic base for American agriculture. Raeburn says only those varieties which can stand up to the rigors of modern harvesting and transport are grown today.
RAEBURN: Crops grown on that large scale have to be designed for several things that we don't always think about. They have to be grown so that all plants mature at the same time. If they're going to be mechanically harvested, the harvester has to be able to go down the rows and grab everything. They have to have certain characteristics spread into them to make them shippable. They have to last for a considerable period of time after they're harvested, remain fresh and sellable.
SCHIFFMAN: And they also have to be prolific. In recent decades, new high yield strains of vegetables, grains, and fruits such as apples have replaced a whole slew of less productive varieties. Elizabeth Ryan is an apple grower from the Hudson Valley in New York.
RYAN: High productivity has been a big priority. It's knocked a lot of these older varieties out of the loop because they may have been better in the broadest sense, and many of them were, but they don't necessarily give these intensely high yields.
SCHIFFMAN: Another factor which limits what gets grown in America is the demand of a few large customers.
(Music and voice-over: "Now start your day with McDonald's hot egg McMuffin for just 89 cents." A doorbell rings.)
SCHIFFMAN: Huge corporate buyers have a tremendous influence over the food market. The type of pea that Birds Eye likes or the potato that McDonald's uses for its French fries quickly becomes the industry standard. The large supermarket chains also have a lot to say about what gets grown. Ira Cohen says that the supermarkets are looking for produce which has a long shelf life and flawless appearance.
COHEN: Everybody, whether you're buying produce or you're buying an automobile or a pair of shoes, what looks good to you is what you will buy first. When it comes to food it's even more important.
(Voices yelling, packages being moved.)
SCHIFFMAN: If the worldwide trade in fruits and vegetables has a nerve center, it's the Hunts Point Market in the South Bronx. Huge refrigerated trucks roll into the nation's largest wholesale market at all hours of the day and night. They deliver their pallet loads of fruits and vegetables on the over one mile of unloading docks.
GORDON: We feed 22 million metropolitan New Yorkers out of this market.
SCHIFFMAN: Myra Gordon is the administrative director of the Hunts Point Market.
GORDON: We ship our products as far north as Maine, as far south as Florida, as far west as Chicago, and we ship into Western Europe and the Caribbean basin every day.
SCHIFFMAN: Gordon says that the supermarkets sell us just what we ask for. She asserts that we Americans have become accustomed to getting what we want when we want it.
GORDON: People are very spoiled. They want corn 12 months a year; they want tomatoes 12 months a year; they want stone fruit 12 months a year. Traditionally those items had seasons, and they were only available during a given season. Now there's always some place in the world growing something that comes in here.
SCHIFFMAN: Gordon thinks that it's a system that works for consumers. She says that the high volume sales and global reach of today's supermarket have been a tremendous benefit. And she and others are puzzled that people would criticize it.
GORDON: We are living longer, healthier lives, more productive lives, primarily because we are all eating better and we are all eating more fresh fruits and vegetables.
COHEN: Here in the United States we don't have people starving because there isn't enough food available.
SCHIFFMAN: Ira Cohen runs his wholesale company out of the Hunts Point Market.
COHEN: I have a very, very limited amount of respect for people that have anything to say negative about agriculture in the United States. I feel very privileged that I live in a country that has the ability to produce this type of produce, this variety, this quality, and allows us all to eat better than people have in time immemorial.
SCHIFFMAN: Americans do enjoy the most bountiful and cheapest food supply in the world. We spend on average only 12% of our incomes on food. Europeans pay over twice that much. But the question for many critics, like Joan Gussow, is whether all of this can last.
GUSSOW: Because of the way we grow, because of our carelessness at maintaining genetic resources, because of the concentration of power over food and how narrow the base has become of what companies will buy, this sort of abundance that we have in the supermarket is kind of very perilous.
SCHIFFMAN: In particular, author Paul Raeburn worries that by growing vast tracts of genetically identical crops, we are becoming more vulnerable to diseases, like the potato blight which decimated Ireland in the 1840s, and which has just recently reappeared, this time on North American shores.
RAEBURN: In Maine last year, in 1994, farmers lost about 30% of their crop. Maine potatoes are one of the mainstays of that state's economy. New York lost about half of its crop. And the blight is back this year and likely to be worse.
SCHIFFMAN: Raeburn says that infestations like the potato blight don't have to be devastating so long as we maintain a healthy diversity of crop varieties and cultivation.
RAEBURN: If you plant all one variety and a pest or disease comes along that can attack that one, you're wiped out. If you have a variety of different corn types growing in your fields, and a pest or a disease comes along as they always do, it's likely to attack one or two or three of the varieties but not all of them.
SCHIFFMAN: When a new pest shows up, Raeburn says it's essential that plant breeders have a large stock of different seeds with which to develop resistant strains. But he claims that these priceless genetic reserves are being lost. Raeburn cites as an example the woefully under-funded seed bank run by the US Department of Agriculture. Instead of being replanted, the seeds are dying on the shelves, and our capacity to protect our food supply against crop blights is diminishing with them. Raeburn adds that there is no market for us which will demand genetic diversity in agriculture, so government must take the lead in preserving it.
RAEBURN: We need to conserve the resources in the seed banks. We need to conserve the wild places where wild crop relatives grow, so that we have the material available to solve the problem. We want to save those habitats so that we can continue to explore and look for other potentially useful plants for agriculture.
SCHIFFMAN: Others hold that since small farms are reservoirs of genetic diversity, keeping them in business is crucial. If the supermarkets stocked more regional fruits and vegetables in season, they say, there would be an even greater variety of produce for all of us to enjoy. And as apple grower Elizabeth Ryan reminds us, variety is, after all, the spice of life.
RYAN: It's the same reason why we don't want to have one kind of people in the world. I mean, 50 kinds of apples, I have apples that are sweet, I have apples that are tart, I have apples that are sweet-tart, I have apples that are as hard as a rock, they're like a piece of wood almost, and I have apples that just melt in your mouth. In our case, our customers love that we have all these different varieties. And the more varieties we have for them, the happier they are.
SCHIFFMAN: The growing popularity of farm stands, farmer's markets, and specialty food stores, does seem to indicate that consumer want more variety than is usually offered to them. Elizabeth Ryan believes that the supermarkets and growers alike are beginning to get the message, too. And that's a hopeful sign, she says, that more of America's agricultural diversity can be preserved. For Living on Earth, I'm Richard Schiffman in New York.
(Music up and under)
CURWOOD: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation, in cooperation with WBUR, Boston, and Harvard University. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer.
(Music up and under)
ANNOUNCER: Major funding for Living on Earth comes from the W. Alton Jones Foundation; the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation; the National Science Foundation for coverage of science in the environment; and the Ford Foundation for reporting on environment and development issues.
(Music up and under)
NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.
(Music up and under)
CURWOOD: Coming up in the second half of Living on Earth, Alaska writer Nancy Lord on the prospect of drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
(Music up and under)
(Theme music up and under)
CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Harvard Professor E.O. Wilson has had ice water poured over his head in protest of some of his theories, but many credit him with revolutionizing our understanding of our place in nature. Edward Wilson in this half hour of NPR's Living on Earth. First, this week's almanac.
(Music up and under)
CURWOOD: It's high political season, and that means there's a veritable stampede of political animals raging across the landscape. America's most famous political animals, after the bald eagle of course, are the donkey and elephant. Both have the same lineage, coming from the pen of famed political cartoonist Thomas Nast. One hundred and twenty six years ago this month, Mr. Nast first represented the Democrats as a donkey in a Harper's Weekly cartoon. By the way, Webster's New World Dictionary first defines a donkey as a domesticated ass. The second meaning: a person regarded as stupid, foolish, or obstinate. Four years later, Mr. Nast used the elephant to represent the Republicans. Websters defines it as huge and thick-skinned. If their emblems were to vote a straight party line, the nation would be overwhelmingly run by the Dems. There are an estimated 140,000 donkeys in the US, and only 600 elephants.
(Music up and under: "Subsequently!")
CURWOOD: Point Judith Pond, Trustom Pond National Wildlife Refuge, Galilee Bird Sanctuary. These salt marshes, shallow ponds, and estuaries are all vital elements of the coastal ecosystem of the country's smallest state, Rhode Island. And they are all threatened by the recent spill of more than 800,000 gallons of home heating oil just offshore. Tens of thousands of lobsters, clams, and starfish were killed by the oil in the first few days after the spill. About 200 sea birds died or were harmed as well, and scientists believe these casualty figures will rise. But even when the dead wildlife stops washing up on shore, the danger is far from over. Dr. Judith McDowell, a scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution on Cape Cod, says the effects of the spill could last for years. Dr. McDowell says the Rhode Island spill reminds her of past accidents nearby.
McDOWELL: This spill is very comparable to a spill that occurred in 1969 off the coast of West Falmouth, Massachusetts.
CURWOOD: This was the same kind of oil?
McDOWELL: It was heating oil, Number Two fuel oil, yes.
McDOWELL: And we saw again, very rapid die-off of shellfish, invertebrates, fin fish washing ashore. And the recovery of those organisms once that acute toxic phase had passed really took many years.
CURWOOD: What are some of the long-term effects that you saw by looking at the West Falmouth spill?
McDOWELL: Certainly, one of the most significant long-term effects of hydrocarbons in a situation like this is the effects on growth and development of the early life stages of marine animals.
CURWOOD: For example?
McDOWELL: For instance, there was a population of fiddler crabs in the salt marshes affected by the West Falmouth spill. And 2 graduates students at the time observed that fiddler crabs could not successfully colonize the contaminated sediments, up to a period of about 8 years following the initial spill. And they saw behavioral differences in the juvenile crabs, they saw problems with over-wintering, they saw problems with reproduction as well as growth. And that just is one example of the thousands of examples that have been studied around the world, that shows the kinds of low-level effects that can certainly be just as devastating for populations of marine life in the aftermath of the spill.
CURWOOD: You said that the estuary is very important as a breeding ground, as a nursery. I'm wondering what effects are on the reproductive abilities of the animals that you found over time.
McDOWELL: Well, certainly there have been effects not only on reproductive development, development of eggs, but abnormalities within those eggs, such as the offspring will not fully develop. In other studies, petroleum hydrocarbons can also alter an organism's ability to sense its food, so in essence there can be plenty of food within the habitat. But the animal starves to death because it cannot detect that food appropriately.
CURWOOD: What does the West Falmouth coastline look like today?
McDOWELL: Pretty pleasant and no direct evidence that a devastating oil spill occurred 27 years ago. But in a retrospective study in 1989, 20 years after the spill, several scientists went back out to the study site that they had examined earlier and still found traces of petroleum hydrocarbons within some of the upper reaches of the salt marsh. And certainly not concentrations that would suggest devastating biological damage, but certainly suggest that these compounds, once in the environment, are highly persistent.
CURWOOD: Dr. McDowell, let me ask you to step back from this for just a moment and think: what's the worst thing about this kind of oil spill?
McDOWELL: Well, the worst part of a spill like this is that it could have been prevented. We need heating oil in the winter time, so we cannot stop all oil transport. But we can take better precautions that will hold constructions for tankers, was discussed after the Exxon Valdez spill. Double hull construction for barges is now being discussed because of this spill. But that's going to take quite a long period of time to change our whole way in which we regulate and approve oil transport. I think the good news is that where oil spills have occurred, even ones as large as the Exxon Valdez spill, the ecosystem does recover. But the immediate effect, and certainly the sociological and economic effect on those communities most impacted, is a very difficult problem.
CURWOOD: Dr. McDowell, thanks for joining us.
McDOWELL: Thank you.
CURWOOD: Judith McDowell is a sea grant director of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Woods Hole, Massachusetts.
(Music up and under)
CURWOOD: The dangers of oil are behind much of the controversy over the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. An overwhelming number of US citizens oppose opening it up to oil drilling. But in Alaska itself, where oil literally means cash in the pocket to residents, there is overwhelming support for drilling. Commentator Nancy Lord has been thinking about the meaning of the controversy over ANWR: for the wildlife, for the democratic process, and for the use of language itself.
LORD: Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. What do these four words mean? Arctic. Okay, far away in the oft frozen north. National. It belongs to all of us, all Americans, whether we ever go there or not. Wildlife. It's been set aside for these values, for the caribou, musk ox, polar bear, all the nesting birds and other creatures that live there. Refuge. Refuge, a haven or sanctuary. Got it? Okay, now one more question: shall the coastal portion of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge be open to oil drilling? This is a decision for Congress and the President to make, based on their best judgment, all the facts, all of what they hear from their constituents, and those special interests that pay their campaign expenses.
The last time Congress came near to opening the Arctic Refuge to oil drilling was in 1989, just before the Exxon Valdez dumped 11 million gallons of crude into pristine marine waters. Today, the 3 members of Alaska's Congressional delegation sit in Washington power positions. They merely slip an opening provision into the budget reconciliation package: no more environmental review, no public debate, just do it. President Clinton just vetoes it. But don't worry, the men with the giant can opener will be back. They will cut that lid off, yet. There's too much money inside. It doesn't matter that whatever oil may idle there won't go away, will surely be worth much more in the future when, perhaps, we'll have learned how to use it sparingly and without making a mess. The future doesn't concern those who would like to make their fortunes today.
Those people will have you believe that oil production in the refuge will leave only the tiniest inconsequential mark. That the caribou that calve along the coast will be grateful to rub their backs against the pipelines. That the native people need oil jobs, or they'll be left to starve in this impoverished place. That the nation needs this oil. You might even believe some of this nonsense, because a major policy decision attached as a rider to a spending bill does not allow true information to be presented. Changing a protected habitat area to an industrial zone is a change that Americans deserve to think hard about and consider with some understanding of what's to be gained and lost. Next time oil interests advocate drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, or any other protected place, let us insist they come out of their back room hiding and present us with a single piece of legislation that can be scrutinized on its merits, to pass or fail according to the honest choices of Americans.
CURWOOD: Nancy Lord is a writer and fisherwoman in Homer, Alaska. She comes to us from member station KBBI.
CURWOOD: E.O. Wilson brings us a bug's eye view of the world coming up on Living on Earth. Stick around.
(Music up and under)
CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. All around the world, people are seeking more sustainable ways to use our natural resources. Middle paths between devastation and preservation. One such person is Harry Morrison. He's a New Mexico logger whose sustainable harvest operation is benefiting everyone from mill employees and customers to visitors to a renowned Boy Scout ranch. Deborah Begel has our report.
(Man: "I think the key is cutting off the trees as close to the ground as you did." Second man: "Right. It's harder to log this way, but if you have a careful operator and you have some..." Footfalls.)
BEGEL: Here in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of northeastern New Mexico, the Boy Scouts of America own a thickly-forested 137,000-acre ranch. It was heavily logged in the past, even clear-cut in some areas, creating erosion and drainage problems. Unhappy with the unsightly and unhealthy results, the Philmont Boy Scout Ranch stopped all logging in the 70s and 80s. But while the forests lay fallow, new problems cropped up.
HOBBS: We had a tremendous fuel wood buildup in the underbrush here. And we got a big mistletoe disease infestation around the Miners' Park area, which is a very prime camping site in the Ponderosa zone.
BEGEL: Greg Hobbs is a member of the Philmont Scout Ranch Committee. He says despite these problems, many committee members were loathe to begin logging again. And, he says, several foresters they talked to felt the scouts weren't willing to cut enough timber to make it worth their while.
HOBBS: And Harry Morrison was asked by the ranch to take a look at what might be done.
BEGEL: Harry Morrison is a forester and small mill owner, part of a new breed of managers who practice logging that they say is both economically viable and environmentally responsible. Morrison took the job. He helped the Scouts come up with a timber management plan that satisfied even the most reluctant ranch committee members.
HOBBS: Harry showed us that we could start with a 20-acre, 40-acre tract, thin, say 25 to 30% of the merchantable timber, and actually we could sustain conservation of the timber and wildlife resources on the ranch by the income from selling those trees, but with carefully prescribing the conditions under which it would be done.
BEGEL: Morrison's plan left a mixed age forest with a healthy diversity of Ponderosa pine, Rocky Mountain juniper, Douglas fir, and Pinon pine.
MORRISON: So about 5,000 to 6,000 Boy Scouts will hike or hike this trail annually. So we wanted to be real careful in what we did in here.
BEGEL: Morrison says logging a place like this requires a careful hand.
MORISSON: They're here to enjoy the back country, so we didn't want to leave a forest that looked overly managed. You can look through there and see what it looks like. We've opened it up some. Water's always a critical element in the southwest, so we want to make sure that we protect our watersheds. By protecting the water, you're probably helping your wildlife populations. What we want to do in the southwest is always make sure we select our sites very carefully, and not select sites to log that are going to be highly erodable.
(Motor running. A door creaks open. Logs spill onto the ground. A buzz saw starts up.)
BEGEL: While the Boy Scouts' priorities are recreation, wildlife preservation, and forest health, the owners of the Diamond S Ranch in the San Juan Mountains across the Colorado border want to make money. They, too, turn to Morrison for help. Managing partner Jeb Binkley wanted to add logging to the ranch's cattle grazing and big game hunting operations. But he also needed to protect the value of the land.
BINKLEY: Most people that are buying big ranches now are buying them for the recreation and the inherent serenity and beauty. And by lightly harvesting the timber at any one time, I think, we retain those essential elements and hopefully promote them.
BEGEL: Morrison's plan for the Diamond S Ranch allows Binkley to log 30% to 40% of a stand, and return to log it again in 20 to 25 years. Now 12 years into the logging operation, the ranch makes money off its timber and gets a tax break for preserving elk habitat. This approach has impressed some environmentalists.
CAREY: This really looks good because my definition, I guess, of good forest management is that you leave a forest behind.
BEGEL: Henry Carey runs Forest Trust in Santa Fe, which advocates sustainable forestry. He calls this a conservative cut.
CAREY: And in this place, as we stand here, you can feel that it's still shady, it's still cool. The microclimate has not been drastically changed by this harvesting. So this is the kind of harvesting, I think, that we need to see happening across all of our forests.
BEGEL: For Harry Morrison, sustainable forestry requires balancing 3 fundamental goals.
MORRISON: Number one, it must be sustainable biologically. You shouldn't be cutting any more than you're growing. Number two, it should be sustainable by the individual or institution that's owner of the land. And number three, it should be -- these are my own ideas really, I guess -- but it should be sustainable from a community level.
(A motor runs, a mill saws wood.)
BEGEL: It's here at his mill in New Mexico's Chama Valley that Morrison completes the loop of his forestry business. Timber from Jeb Binkley's ranch and others ends up here, where it's process and sold directly to local retail customers as lumber and firewood.
MORRISON: The logs come in here. I scale them, measure them, sort them out, take them to the mill, put them on the deck. They go into the wood miser.
(A motor runs; wood is sawed.)
BEGEL: By cutting out the middleman, Morrison can make back some of the extra cost of his selective logging operation. He also keeps jobs in the local community and produces a product that he says local people can afford.
MORRISON: What I'm trying to do with my little business is go ahead and manufacture this on a local level, so that this log won't be shipped, say, 100 miles and manufactured into lumber and sold to a distributor and then resold to a store in Chama. But hopefully by eliminating the middleman I can sell a quality product for a reasonable price to local people. Which is kind of unique.
BEGEL: Forester Harry Morrison says every stand of trees in each part of the country is different, so his approach may not work everywhere. But where the conditions are right, Morrison's business could be a model for a country that wants it all: cheap lumber, good jobs, and healthy forests. For Living on Earth, this is Deborah Begel in Chama Valley, New Mexico.
(Music up and under)
WILSON: I can stop dead in my tracks. Let's do it right now. (Laughs)
WILSON: And I have, we have before us, as we're looking down on the ground, it looks like sort of a 2-dimensional world, there's not much there in the dead leaves...
(Footfalls on leaves)
CURWOOD: Meet Edward O. Wilson, Harvard's ant man. A population biologist and passionate advocate for the conservation of all forms of life.
WILSON: But I know that if I kneel and start scratching into the leaves, that I will immediately be within arm's reach of up to hundreds of species of the creepy crawlies that I work on, the insects and spiders and millipedes and other small creatures. And I also know that probably some of these are new to science, haven't even been described, at least a very small percentage in this part of the world.
CURWOOD: Dr. Wilson is one of 25 people Living on Earth is profiling for his contribution to environmental awareness. He's made major contributions in the field of entomology, population ecology, sociobiology, and conservation. But his first love is scratching around in the dirt. Dr. Wilson recently took us to one of his favorite haunts near his home in suburban Boston.
WILSON: And I am going to cut, now, down next to this stone with this trowel. (Sound of a trowel cutting through leaves) And I would ask you to not think of ...
CURWOOD: But before he begins his search in earnest, Professor Wilson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning storyteller, sets the scene. Put yourself, he suggests, in the place of an ant or a beetle.
WILSON: And your scale of interest is now millimeters. And I will ask you to imagine descending with me down through these leaves, down through this part of the soil in which the leaves are just beginning to be broken up by fungi and insects, and recognize that we are doing the equivalent of descending, if you were now back to human scale, as into an ocean from the surface, down into the unlighted depth. And we recognize, too, that the environment for these little creatures changes radically.
CURWOOD: Professor Wilson is obsessed with this bug's eye view. For him, exploring these unlighted depths reveals the secrets of life. He calls it gazing at the face of creation.
WILSON: I would say that if we spent a long time here and took samples we would probably turn up in the square meter into the tens of thousands of these creatures that are large enough to be seen with the naked eye.
CURWOOD: This splendid diversity of life isn't just an idle fascination for Professor Wilson. It's the foundation of human life on the planet. And therefore, it's political. Recently he's been testifying before Congress on Endangered Species legislation, and personally telling House Speaker Newt Gingrich about the need to protect the country's remaining species of plants, animals, and microbes.
WILSON: In the best known groups, about 1.5% have gone extinct, mostly in the last 100 years, and 22% are rated by The Nature Conservancy, 22% rated as rare, threatened, or endangered. And that should be regarded as pretty alarming.
CURWOOD: Dr. Wilson became alarmed at species loss about 15 years ago. Since then he's been a leading spokesman for conservation worldwide, and his concern is rooted in decades of pioneering field work. He's the world's number one authority on the social behavior, communication, and colonization patterns of ants. And in the 1960s, Professor Wilson, and population biologist Robert MacArthur, developed a groundbreaking theory of island biogeography. It showed for the first time the link between acreage and the numbers of species an area can support. Jared Diamond, a physiologist who studies birds in New Guinea, says the theory caused a revolution as important as the one brought by the modeling of DNA.
DIAMOND: It wasn't just that Watson-Crick came up with the correct model for DNA. In doing so they stimulated the whole explosion of the field of molecular biology. In the same way Robert and Ed not only came up with an important theory of island biogeography, but they stimulated trends in population biology generally.
CURWOOD: Today, Robert MacArthur and Ed Wilson's theory is vital to conservation efforts. It helps wildlife managers figure out how much land groups of animals need to survive. But the achievement that Professor Wilson considers the most satisfying of his career has to do with social behaviors, not numbers. His years of studying insect societies, observing primates in the wild, and wrestling with the meaning of altruism among animals, launched him on a search for a unifying explanation. By 1975 Professor Wilson felt he had it, and he laid it out in the book Sociobiology: The New Synthesis. His fundamental idea was that the social behavior of all creatures, including insects, invertebrates, even humans, is strongly influenced by our genes. Sociobiology sparked a storm of controversy: feminists, civil rights advocates and others saw it as a throwback to the days of biological determinism. These critics felt the theory legitimized the nastiest aspects of human behavior: sexism, murder, rape, and racism. The topic still inflames many, including retired Harvard biologist Ruth Hubbard.
HUBBARD: People act as though things that are biological are set in stone, and things that are societal or environmental can be changed overnight. Well, that simply isn't true, and the thought that we can sort these things out by various tricks of doing comparative studies or whatever, I think is an illusion.
CURWOOD: Defenders of sociobiology say biology doesn't determine human behavior, but that it does affect it. And what Professor Hubbard considers un-provable, the origins of behavior, others simply call challenging. Meanwhile, in the last 20 years, sociobiology of animals has become widely accepted and studied. What remains controversial is the relationship between human behavior and genes, and it is that relationship which still most intrigues Professor Wilson today. What kind of creatures are we, he wonders. How much has the human species been shaped by the natural world? And what is our relationship to it now? Dr. Wilson thinks the answers have profound importance.
WILSON: I think the evidence is mounting that we are in great need of the remainder of life and in the kinds of ecosystems and the configuration of the color and the movement that in fact wild nature provides us, and that it would be a very grave mistake to throw it all away.
CURWOOD: Despite the tremendous damage we've caused, Dr. Wilson believes humans have responses to nature embedded in our genes, which evolved over hundreds of thousands of years. And he says these responses can't be erased by a hundred years of concrete buildings and high technology. He's organized his thoughts about this need into what he calls the Biophilia Hypothesis: the love of life. Dr. Wilson believes it even shows itself in some very specific human preferences.
WILSON: We prefer a dwelling or an observation point on a prominence looking down on a body of water, and we prefer a savanna, scattered trees. The ancestral habitat of humanity, actually.
CURWOOD: Dr. Wilson says we aren't just the shapers of the Earth, but we have been shaped by it in our DNA. He believes that our physical and psychological health depend on contact with nature. As the planet's diversity is impoverished, so are we.
It's too soon to tell what kind of staying power the biophilia hypothesis will have. It's a lightning rod idea which other researchers are testing. Certainly Professor Wilson's grand theories haven't always been popular. In 1977, angry critics of sociobiology mounted a stage and dumped a pitcher of ice water on his head, yelling, "You're all wet!" But in the long run, Edward O. Wilson may well rank among the most creative and influential scientists of his time.
DIAMOND: The astonishing thing about Ed is that he has scored a thousand so many times.
CURWOOD: Jared Diamond of UCLA, speaking about biologist and conservationist Edward O. Wilson.
(Music up and under)
CURWOOD: Senior producer for Living on Earth is Chris Ballman. Our editor is Peter Thomson and our director is Deborah Stavro. Our production team includes George Homsy, Kim Motylewski, Constantine Von Hoffman, Jan Nunley, and Julia Madeson.
We also had help from Marney Kimmel, Christopher Knorr, Mark Borelli, Susan Shepherd, Liz Lempert, and Michael Argue. Our engineers in the WBUR studio are Mark Navin and Keith Shields. Our Harvard University engineers are Larry Bouthellier and Jeff Martini. Michael Aharon composed our theme. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer.
(Music up an under)
ANNOUNCER: Major funding for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation for coverage of science in the environment; the Ford Foundation; the W. Alton Jones Foundation for reporting on environmental ethics; and the Joyce Foundation.
NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.
This Week's Books
Living on Earth wants to hear from you!
P.O. Box 990007
Boston, MA, USA 02199
Donate to Living on Earth!
Living on Earth is an independent media program and relies entirely on contributions from listeners and institutions supporting public service. Please donate now to preserve an independent environmental voice.
Sailors For The Sea: Be the change you want to sea.
Innovating to make the world a better, more sustainable place to live. Listen to the race to 9 billion
The Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment: Committed to protecting and improving the health of the global environment.
Energy Foundation: Serving the public interest by helping to build a strong, clean energy economy.
Contribute to Living on Earth and receive, as our gift to you, an archival print of one of Mark Seth Lender's extraordinary wildlife photographs. Follow the link to see Mark's current collection of photographs.
Buy a signed copy of Mark Seth Lender's book Smeagull the Seagull & support Living on Earth